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Happy Campers

Are overnight camps a good idea for kids with autism?

Overnight Camp for Kids with Autism
May 2013

One year you wonder if you should send your child to overnight Camp. Then, in the blink of an eye, you wish he was still young enough to go. Camp is a rite of passage for all kids. Even kids with autism. Maybe it's one for the parents, too.

"Camps are a part of typical growing up. There's an amazing level of maturity that comes from participating in camp," said Scott Fogo, Director of Autism and Medical Rehabilitation Services at Easter Seals Crossroads. The organization runs Camp ROCKS, a unique camp exclusively for kids ages 10 - 18 who have autism. He sees camp as a typical childhood activity that allows for some wonderful opportunities for independence as children transition into middle school, high school or even on to college.

It has been the experience of Tim Nowak, Program Director of Jameson Camp and Vice President of American Camp Association Indiana, that overnight camp provides kids with autism a chance to immerse themselves in a socially rich environment where they practice social skills all day.

"They really get that opportunity to work on social skills even if they don't know it's happening. It's a natural component of everything they do at camp," said Nowak, whose camp provides an inclusive setting in which kids with high functioning autism attend alongside neurotypical kids. There are other benefits of overnight camp, too. Miriam Rolles, a Greenfield mom with a child on the autism spectrum who has attended Camp ROCKS many times, sees it as an opportunity for respite.

"I preferred overnight camp because that was my time to go on vacation throughout the year. It's hard to do family leisure activities with a child who has autism because hotels are hard, restaurants are hard, it's just hard," she said.

The case for overnight camp is compelling. Following are tips that may help determine if it's right for your child.

Help your child learn self-reliance.

Even it if means relying on a checklist of things to do to get ready for bed, self-care skills are important.

Stay at grandma's.

Once your child is comfortable staying overnight at a relative's or friend's house, it's more likely that overnight camp will be okay, too.

Visit the camp.

One-on-one tours and open house events are great ways to learn about a particular camp. Don't be afraid to ask to see a bathroom, cabin or any other part of the camp.

Help camp get to know your child.

Be upfront and honest with camp staff about your child's fears or anxieties so they can anticipate problems and help your child cope.

Prepare the camper.

Some camps have in-depth camper handbooks or websites that can serve as a sort of social story. "Often kids with autism like things to be as predictable as possible so we have a handbook with lots of pictures and descriptions about what to expect," said Fogo.

Don't be shy.

"Autism is a normal thing in camp environment now so parents should be reassured that even if this is the first time for them to figure out camp for their child, it's not the first time for the camp administrator to do so," said Nowak. So give your preferred camp a call. They will know what they can and cannot handle.

Compare camper to camp.

Look at the nature of your child's needs versus what the camp is able to offer. No camp or program can be all things to all people.

Stay positive.

Your energy toward camp sets the tone for the camper's experience. Families should talk about how camp is going to be a positive experience and avoid talking about any horror stories from your days as a camper.

Happy camping!

Tags: Camp, In This Issue, Special Needs

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